History of Stick Bombs

© Tim Fort 2011, 2012, 2013

There seems to be an utter lack of real information on the subject of stick bombs. I started the Wikipedia page on stick bombs years ago, but it's since been mangled and corrupted with erroneous information, so it's all but worthless. Most of my kinetic-art techniques like the clever lever and the herringbone are completely my own invention, but stick bombs do have a bit of history apart from my own efforts.

The origins of stick bombs are obscured in murkiness. When I first learned how to make the basic single-celled stick bombs back in the late 1970s, they were referred to as "Chinese stick puzzles" which may or may not indicate an Asiatic origin to them. Considering that flat sticks of some sort have probably been around for centuries, if not millennia, I don't find this implausible at all. Even if they weren't invented in China, I wouldn't be surprised that basic stick bombs have been around for a long time. My own father recalls that his cousins were playing with stick bombs back in the 1950s, so they've been around for at least a few generations.

After years of searching in libraries and on the Internet, I've found almost no literary references to stick bombs. I definitely recall seeing an activity book for boy scouts back in the 1980s that had instructions for building the simple 5-stick 'triangle' bomb, but I haven't seen the book since then. A couple of years ago, I saw an Internet reference to a book by scoutmaster John Sweet that had instructions on stick bombs, but I cannot find the reference any more, so I can't confirm if it's the same book I saw in the 80s. It may have been his book Scout Pioneering which has a publication date of 1974 and may have been written as early at the late 40s or early 50s, but this book isn't available in the United States.

Information on complex stick bombs that go beyond the basic 5- and 6-stick varieties is even more scant. In the International Journal of Solids and Structures Volume 25, Issue 12 from 1989, there is an article by Tibor Tarnai on "Duality Between Plane Trusses and Grillages" whose abstract mentions "...which can be physically modelled with popsicle sticks by weaving." Tarnai's article referred to a person named Ruina who claimed to have invented an 'infinite stick bomb' in 1971, but I cannot find any further information on this. Several years ago, I recall seeing a website created by a brother and sister who invented creative variations on the basic stick bombs, but that site is long gone.

The only inventor of complex stick bombs out there other than myself whose claims can be substantiated is Joey Collard who invented his 'frame bombs' completely independent of me. While his frame bombs are based on the same basic ideas as my stick bombs, they're radically different in appearance. His frame bombs are very clever in design and are designed to be primarily decorative in nature. You should definitely check out his website, The Great Website of Frame Bombs.

As for me, I learned the art of making stick bombs back in 1977 or so, when I was in the seventh grade. My memory is fuzzy on this, but I vaguely recall that my instructor was a junior-high friend of mine, Harold Johnson. We were both on the track team where I distinguished myself as being the worst sprinter and long-jumper in my school's history, with Harold close behind. To pass time on track meets, we started chucking stick bombs to amuse ourselves.

This was long before I hit upon the idea of using tongue depressors, so we used popsicle sticks instead. The image below shows the three basic designs that I learned. On the left is the triangle bomb made out of five sticks, in the middle is the square bomb made out of six sticks, and on the right is the hourglass bomb made out of five sticks. The triangle bomb is the most commonly made single-celled bomb out there and there's dozens of websites and videos showing how it's made. The square bomb is less common but I've seen a few references to it, and the hourglass bomb is relatively rare.

While I had many other interests at the time--including girls--I still played around with stick bombs on occasion. While it was fun to throw throw the basic bombs, enhancing their explosive power with a "Kaboom!" or two, I felt that there was a lot more potential to them. What intrigued me was that they involved a sudden release of energy which technically made them an explosive of sorts, even though they didn't quite have the power of thermonuclear warheads or even dynamite. I quickly caught on to the basic idea behind stick bombs; each stick is woven around three other sticks in an up-down-up configuration in a basket weave of sorts and it was the elastic tension caused by the flexing of the sticks that gave them their energy.

I played around with the basic configuration trying to come up with new designs. The first stick bomb design I came up with was a misshapen monstrosity with seven sticks whose design I can't even replicate any more. Then I invented the four-stick design as seen in the image below. I still haven't settled on a definite name for the design after all these years, but the 'A' bomb seems the best. Four sticks seems to be the absolute minimum for stick bombs (unless you live in a bizarre non-Euclidian universe) and it appears that others have come up with the same design independent of me. One of the benefits of the design is that you can use is as a Starfleet insignia in a low-budget remake of Star Trek.

In search of a bigger bang, I tried making stick bombs out of rulers and plastic sticks--and found that plastic sticks tended to be too slippery to make them hold together. Since making stick bombs out of 2x4s wasn't very practical, I decided that making a bigger bang ultimately involved using more sticks. The first idea I tried, and one thought of by others on YouTube, was to make a pile of stick bombs and throw another bomb at the pile in hopes of setting off a chain reaction. Unfortunately, this wasn't a very good idea as stick bombs tend to stick together very hard. To even have a chance of a chain reaction, you'd have to have each bomb in a 'hair trigger' configuration with the sticks barely overlapping--and it's very hard to accumulate a pile of hair-trigger bombs without an accidental detonation. Another conceptual dead end that I tried was to link stick bombs together like a chain, but that didn't work either.

And then sometime during the early 80s, I had an inspired idea, sort of a nerd epiphany. I would build a stick bomb, then I would build another one on the side of the first one, using one stick in common to both sides. Since square bombs seemed to be the most modular and symmetric, that seemed like a good one to start with. What I ended up with was the bomb on the left in the image below. I found out, though, that if I blew up one side of the bomb, the other side remained intact. However, I had another flash of inspiration. I realized that if I removed the stick common to both sides (the red stick in this example), the whole bomb would remain intact as seen on the right. What made this work was that for each yellow stick that was pushing in one direction, there was a green stick pushing in the opposite direction. And, voilà, I created my first multi-celled bomb.

I call this method of creating multi-celled bombs the "redundant-stick" method because the the extra, or redundant, stick is removed after the second cell is added to the first. It's an iterative process that can be repeated an indefinite number of times to create stick bombs of arbitrary size as seen in the image below.

What's great about the redundant-stick method is that it doesn't just work with square bombs. It can be used with other basic bombs as well, and different types of basic bombs can be combined.

The main drawback with the redundant-stick method is that it's a very slow and tedious process, especially when popsicle sticks are used, so I didn't do much with the method. Through the 80s, I played around with stick bombs on occasion, but was mostly busy with less important things like getting a degree in rocket science and getting married. From the 80s through 1999 when I started my career as a kinetic artist, I came up with one more radical idea that paved the way for modern stick bombs: the "continuous-weave" method which greatly sped up stick-bomb making. The idea was that I would dispense with the redundant stick and simply hold down the 'open' end of the stick bomb with one hand while positioning the sticks with the other hand. I used the continuous-weave method with the square bomb as the basic unit, and thus came up with what I now refer to as the 'ortho' weave as seen below.

It was sometime in the very late 80s or early 90s when I came up with the continuous-weave idea, and I distinctly remember the time I first used it to make a large bomb. I was at an ex-relative's house and was building the bomb on her kitchen table. Instead of working sideways, I was assembling the sticks directly in front of myself and pushing the finished cells forward as I progressed. My bomb-making skills weren't very good at the time and the resulting bomb was very crooked and was warping badly. I had about twelve cells assembled when the bomb spontaneously exploded. It startled my ex-relative so much that she jumped a few inches out of her chair, but she had a good laugh afterwards. Yes, it was a classic moment in the History of Stick Bombs (TM).

There were no more breakthroughs in the art of stick-bomb making until 1999 when I decided to take all the various techniques I played around with over the years and combine them into my kinetic art. I can't remember exactly when I made my first true kinetic gadget, but I think it was around the Spring of 1999 and my sister witnessed it as I set off a combination domino, herringbone, and stick-bomb device. Around this time, I came up with my first stick-bomb detonator other than just throwing the darned bomb already. It was simply a weight that fell off the edge of a table and yanked a string that pulled out one of the sticks. Since stick bombs stick together pretty well, I quickly realized that I needed an anchor string that held the bomb to the table to keep it from flying off.

I was still groping around for a bigger blast, but my stick bombs were limited by the fact that I couldn't do more than 10-15 cells before warping threatened to cause a spontaneous detonation. My first idea was to make maybe 8-10 linear stick bombs of 10 or so cells each, laborously add a string to each bomb, and tie all the strings to a really, really heavy weight. This was very tedious and I only did a few like that. Then I came up with the concept of the 'comb' which was to do one linear stick bomb, then do several linear bombs out of the side of the first bomb using the redundant-stick method. I also came up with the idea of doing a line of bombs that detonated in a row. In the image below taken from some of my earliest videos around January 2000, you can see a comb on the left and a line of bombs on the right.

Around June 2000, I made my first complex stick bomb spelling out "POW!". After those three innovations, I was too busy trying other ideas to devote much time to stick-bomb innovations for a while. On April Fool's Day, 2002, I detonated my first world-record stick bomb made out of 742 popsicle sticks as seen in the image below. You can see that I was still going with the comb design.

Around this time, my gadgets made their first public appearances on a local cable-access program, Bonedoggled, and on a webcast, Five Minutes of Fame, and are the earliest public appearances of multi-celled stick bombs that I'm aware of. I made my first broadcast appearance on Twin Cities Public Television's show Almanac on June 28th, 2002 and there was a stick bomb detonation for a finale. Somewhere around 2002-2003, I first played around with using 6"/15cm tongue depressors for sticks instead of the smaller 4-1/2"/11cm popsicle sticks. Tongue depressors are longer and slightly thinner than popsicle sticks, so they have less tension and don't jump as high. However, they are much easier to work with, are much less likely to spontaneously explode due to warping or a weak stick, and are much easier for audiences to see. Later on, tongue depressors would prove to be invaluable as I started experimenting with alternate weaves and doubling up sticks.

By the time of my first museum exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in August and September of 2003, I was using tongue depressors regularly. I would continue use popsicle sticks on occasion, but would slowly lose interest in them, and as of the writing of this history, I very seldom use them at all. During my MIA exhibition, Art That's Really Moving, I detonated my largest stick bomb to date which was about 1,300 sticks, and also made my first stick-bomb field which was about 3x5 cells. I also figured out how to make curved stick bombs by progressively tilting each cell slightly. Another innovation from this period were my first vertical stick bombs which were suspended from a wall with string and tape, and detonated with a falling weight as seen in the photo. I also decided that if I'm trying to get grant money and want to make stick bombs sound more profound than they are, I would occasionally refer to them as "reticulated xyloexplosive ordinance" or something along those lines.

There were no further stick-bomb innovations for a while except for crossovers. In February of 2005 during an exhibition at the A to Z Gallery in Saint Paul, I experienced my first serious lock-up. I had woven about 1,800 sticks in a square spiral and the sticks had set overnight near a radiator. When I detonated the device the next day, the sticks were very sluggish in their detonation and locked up completely on a crossover. Over the next couple of years, I would experience more lock-ups with the ortho weave until I figured out ways to prevent this from happening. Around this time, I started coloring my sticks with acrylic paint and started playing with elevated stick bombs. Both of these innovations can be seen in my first viral Internet video, Tim Fort's Kinetic Art, which I made during August of 2005 in the city of New York Mills, Minnesota. You can see this video, as well as the other ones referenced in this article, by visiting my Videos Page.

The next notable event in the history of stick bombs was on July 27, 2007 when I made my first public attempt at a world-record stick bomb. I successfully detonated an ortho-weave bomb with 1,940 sticks in the city of Inver Grove Heights before a small audience. Later in 2007, I invented the diamond weave which was the first alternate to the ortho weave. In March of 2008, I had an exhibition at the Exhibitor 2008 trade show in Las Vegas where I created several stick bombs that were enjoyed by a large audience. Near the end of 2008, I came up with my first stick-bomb mosaic image of a smiley face. The images below are of the smiley-face mosaic and the diamond weave.

It was about this time that others on the Internet started making multi-celled stick bombs after my designs. Because of that, I felt a responsibility to help people making stick bombs to avoid possible eye injury from accidental detonations. I've worn glasses for decades and those have offered some protection, but it was also dumb luck that prevented me from getting poked with a flying stick. I started advising people inquiring about stick bombs on the Internet to wear safety goggles; while the basic ortho weave made with tongue depressors doesn't have much power, stick bombs made with popsicle sticks jump a lot higher. Also, as I started developing newer and more powerful weaves, it became even more important to wear eye protection.

In 2009, I started finding solutions to the lock-up problem that had plagued me for years. One solution was to tightly weave the sticks to increase the flexing, but this was an inadequate solution. Another more successful solution was to elevate the entire stick bomb on supports which almost guaranteed a perfect detonation. On June 17, I successfully detonated at 2,102-stick bomb for an unofficial world record using an elevated stick bomb--this video is available on the Videos page. Another idea which came to fruition at around this time was a new way to detonate stick bombs. This method worked by keeping one end of the bomb open with a weight resting on one of the sticks to hold it down. When the weight falls from a collapsing herringbone chain, the stick is released and the bomb detonates. During 2009, I also created my first monster-face mosaic for the video Xyloexplosive Xperiments. a design I used several times since then. The left image below is the first incarnation of the monster face and the right image is the 2102-stick bomb.

November 12, 2009 was a notable date in the history of stick bombs when I detonated a 2,250-stick bomb for the first Guinness World Record for 'Largest Stick Bomb'. Both a reporter and a videographer from the Saint Paul Pioneer Press were there to witness the event. It wasn't until March 11, 2010 before Guinness formally recognized the achievement. To prevent a possible lock-up, I wove most of this bomb with the diamond weave which has more power than the standard ortho weave. The image below was taken several hours before the actual detonation.

2010 saw a lot of breakthroughs in the art of stick-bomb making. A very big intellectual breakthrough came near the beginning of the year when I hit upon the idea of doubling up sticks to increase the power of stick bombs. "Doubling up" is simply stacking two sticks together and weaving them into the design as if they were one stick. Simply doubling up the cross or center sticks of an ortho weave was enough to greatly boost the power, but doubling up all the sticks also had the benefit of making stick bombs redundant so if a stick were to break, there would be a backup stick to prevent a spontaneous detonation. My video, Frenetic Kinetics!, which was released in March, saw the first appearance of the bow-tie weave which was based upon the hourglass bomb as the basic unit.

I also began making high-speed test videos of stick bombs to be able to observe them closely and make accurate mesurements. One of the first things I learned was that elevating a stick bomb doubled or even trebled the detonation speed but also prevented the sticks from jumping very high. I also made test videos to measure the detonation speed of various weaves; speeds ranged from about 30 feet/10 meters per second for the standard ortho weave to about 210 feet/65 meters per second for an elevated diamond weave with popsicle sticks.

Later in the year, I combined many of my high-speed test videos into Xtreme Xyloexplosive Xperiments which was a showcase of many radical new ideas in stick bombs. Featured in the video were innovations such as multi-layered bombs, triple weaving, mosaic images made out of cardboard, an updated version of the wall bomb, inline split-offs, the bow-tie weave, the offset diamond weave, hidden-color effects, one-way valves, and a stack bomb. Rather than go into a lengthy discussion of the new techniques, it's better just to show you the video itself.

2010 was truly a watershed year in stick bombs as I set three new world records for largest stick bomb. On June 4, I detonated a 3,200-stick bomb in my studio for a new world record. With this bomb, I tried to incorporate several stunts into the design. A few weeks later on June 20, I detonated a 3,864-stick bomb at the Science Museum of Minnesota as part of the Make: Day event. This bomb was the second one to earn me a certificate from the Guinness folks and the picture at the beginning of this history is from that gadget. And, finally, on October 8, I detonated another world-record stick bomb, this time with 4,242 sticks, for the Saint Paul Art Crawl. I chose 4,242 sticks as an inside joke based on Doug Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The upper image is from the 3,200-stick bomb and the lower image is from the 4,242-stick bomb.

And here are my Guinness certificates from both of my world-record bombs which received official recognition.

In December of 2010, I produced my first tutorial, Xyloexplosives 1001 for YouTube to help promote interest in stick-bomb making. During the Winter of 2010-2011, I developed several new weaves including the zig-zag weave, the slant weave, the quad weave, and the slab weave as seen below.

I also came up with several basic stick bombs including the 'Z' bomb, the 'M' bomb, and the tri-corner bomb as seen below.

Near the end of January of 2011 I made my first audition in Minneapolis for the show America's Got Talent! where I demonstrated a complex handheld stick bomb. Between my first and second audition for AGT, I figured out how to make the cobra weave. I called it the 'cobra' because when it is detonated in the proper direction, the exploding end rears up like a cobra's head. I soon figured out that what caused the end to rear up like it does is similar to what propels a rocket; due to the conservation of momentum, the sticks flying off the exploding end cause an equal and opposite force that pushes against the unexploded sticks and forces them to bend upward. If the cobra weave is detonated in the opposite direction--the so-called 'mongoose' detonation--the cobra effect is lost and the bomb explodes normally. Another remarkable effect of the cobra weave is the slow detonation speed of about 10 feet/3 meters per second compared to about 60 feet/20 meters per second for the double-woven ortho weave. Below is a screenshot from the first video I made of a cobra weave detonation, recorded on February 5, 2011.

For my second audition for AGT in March, I spent about six hours backstage weaving a cobra-weave bomb of about 2,200 sticks on a moveable platform. In a moment of sheer inspiration before I went on stage, I coined the term 'practice safe sticks' to encourage stick-bomb makers to wear safety goggles. My bomb detonation was a success and my 'safe sticks' statement got a big laugh from the audience even though it took a moment for Howie Mandel to get my joke.

A couple of weeks after I returned fromt the Las Vegas round for AGT, I released another collection of stick bomb test videos entitled Xylomania which was a collection of new stick-bomb innovations that I worked on during the Winter and Spring of 2011. The innovations in Xylomania include a stick-sculpture house, a new style of weight-release detonator, a cobra-to-ortho-weave transition, the 'X' weave, a reverser for the ortho weave, a jumbo bomb made of paint-stirrer sticks, a floor-to-wall transition, and cobra weave split-offs. Again, it's easier to show the actual video rather than try to explain the various innovations.

When I was on the Quarter-Final live round on AGT in early August, I experienced the worst disaster in the history of stick bombs. I was attempting to establish a new world record by detonating a bomb of about 7,000 sticks that were mostly in a cobra weave, but also had one of my monster faces and a few other stunts. After 36 hours of non-stop work, my bomb *ahem* bombed on the show; the sticks locked up completely as if they were nailed to the stage floor and I ended up with a 'stuck bomb'. I managed to not lose my cool and salvaged the act by kicking the sticks and setting off the stunts by hand with Nick Cannon's help. I later went on to the Wild Card round where I redeemed myself with a huge herringbone chain that was a big audience favorite and even Piers Morgan genuflected before me and proclaimed that I was indeed the King. I was voted on to the Semi-Final round where I detonated a record clever lever device that wowed the audience, but didn't quite get enough votes for the Top Ten round. All in all, I ended up in 13th place on AGT which is impressive considering that 25,000 people had originally auditioned for the show.

I later determined that the root cause of the disaster was that I had re-painted all of my sticks about a week before heading to Hollywood and the residual moisture, combined with unseasonably humid weather in Los Angeles, had caused the sticks to completely lock up. I ended up throwing out all 10,000 of my sticks and replaced them with new tongue depressors. I eventually painted most of the new batch with fluorescent paint to make them brighter, and am still searching for an easy and foolproof way of coloring sticks.

In October of 2011, I made two new attempts to break my world record for largest stick bomb as compensation for the AGT disaster. On October 7, I detonated a giant cobra weave using 6,767 unpainted sticks for the Saint Paul Art Crawl. Unfortunately, plastic cups I had placed on the bomb had caused it to lock up several times. On October 18, I successfully detonated a bomb of 6,818 sticks in a high-density, 30x32 cell array for a new unofficial world record. Soon after this latest world record, I created my second stick-bomb tutorial, Xyloexplosives 2002, which showed more advanced techniques than my first tutorial, including the cobra weave. The screen shot on the top is from the failed 6,767-stick attempt and the screen shot on the bottom is from the successful 6,818-stick attempt.

After my appearance on AGT, interest in stick bombs exploded and suddenly YouTube was flooded with videos of stick bombs and stick-bomb tutorials. Most of the interest seemed focused on the cobra weave as it is the easiest one to learn, and many of the new stick-bomb enthusiasts seem to be oblivious to my many contributions to the art of stick-bomb making. Ironically, I personally have relegated the cobra weave to secondary status due to its propensity to lock up--something that has happened to others besides myself--and I have decided that if I do use the weave, I'll probably go with the mongoose detonation as that seems to be much less likely to lock up.

One of the many kids who have created stick bombs after my AGT appearance had a video of his with a 1,000-stick cobra weave go viral. Another stick-bomb enthusiast has an unsubstantiated claim of 9,000 sticks exploding out of a 10,000-stick bomb, but I suspect that will probably be broken soon. As for me, I'm anticipating a new world-record attempt sometime in 2013, preferrably with assistants helping because world-record bombs are rapidly growing beyond what a single mortal can attempt without going stark raving mad.

In late 2012, I came up with my latest innovation in stick bombs, the 3-D bomb. I'm still exploring the possibilities, but right now, I can make stick bombs go up walls, climb onto tables, explode sideways, and have vertical self-supporting segments. The picture below has an example of each of these stunts.

And here's my first fully self-supporting 3-D structure made with a new panel-and-tab method I invented.

I hope to update this page in the future as the history of stick bombs is far from over. In fact, the history of stick bombs is just beginning. Hopefully there will be innovations in the art of stick-bomb making by others as stick bombs become more popular. If anybody has further information about the history of stick bombs, please e-mail me at lunatim@infionline.net

A final note: if you're going to play with stick bombs of any sort, you MUST practice 'safe sticks' and wear safety goggles. Some of the weaves, especially if done with the smaller popsicle sticks, can pack a lot of power. If you're a geek worthy of your pocket protector, you should already realize the value of protective equipment. It's hard to be cool and sophisticated when you have a popsicle stick lodged in your forehead...

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Return to the main Kinetic Art page.